In 'Bobbi Jene', a Dancer's Artistic Vision Is Rooted in Personal Sacrifice

While Bobbi Jene often veers too closely to melodrama, seeing an emboldened woman artistically express her sexuality and earn effusive praise for it is inspirational.

Bobbi Jene

Director: Elvira Lind
Cast: Bobbi Jene Smith, Or Schraiber
Studio: Oscilloscope Laboratories
US Release date: 2017-09-22

Contemporary dancer Bobbi Jene Smith’s artistic mantra was cultivated during her ten-year stint at the world famous Batsheva Dance Company in Tel Aviv, where she performed throughout her 20s under company director Ohad Naharin. Naharin founded Gaga: a movement language and pedagogy based on a dancer’s conversion of raw emotion toward passionately improvised movement. It's ironic, then, that director Elvira Lind’s Bobbi Jene -- a documentary profiling Smith, a Gaga disciple  --  is often cursory and emotionally controlled. 

A case in point is Smith’s resignation from Batsheva to move back to the United States. Smith breaks the news to Naharin over lunch at a posh Israeli restaurant. Their dialogue, which one would expect to be intimate and free-flowing, given their longstanding artistic and personal relationship, is emotionally flat and strictly informational. Smith explains her need for independence and a deeper connection to her surroundings, which she believes she will find in the States. But Smith’s position is hardly elaborated or challenged beyond these talking points, and as Naharin accepts Smith’s resignation with little resistance, apparently so should the audience.


Similarly, Smith’s role in Batsheva or life in Israel over ten years is only marginally conveyed through sparse footage. For an artistic journey piece, this shortcoming is particularly glaring, as the question remains: what, on an artistic level, does Smith believe she will obtain as a solo performer as opposed to as a dancer at Batsheva? And why is she so compelled to uproot to another country after a presumably fruitful decade in Israel?

Rather than explore these questions, Lind is more eager to convey a melodramatic story of Smith and her beautiful, gentle and charismatic boyfriend Or Schraiber, who is also a dancer at Batsheva. Lind dedicates an ample amount of footage to playfully tender moments between Smith and Schraiber, which is heart warming to watch for a while: the two exchange in witty banter and genuinely affectionate pillow talk; family dinners full of laughter; and scenic walks along the majestic Tel Aviv coastline. 

But later in the film, when their long-distance relationship hits the fritz, the couple merely outlines for one another their reasons for being apart. Smith explains yet again her desire to be in the US, and Schraiber gently shares his unwillingness to leave Betsheva, or his homeland. The discussions, more essayistic than emotionally charged, convey a polite guardedness which comes across as too scripted for two passionate lovers on the brink of separation. 

Even more problematic is Bobbi Jene’s lack of insight into whether the unraveling relationship disrupts Smith’s ability to work long, unpredictable hours, or saps her creative energy. These issues, so common to struggling young artists trying to make ends meet with little time to spare, would have been ripe ground for candid interview segments, or footage of Smith’s artistic frustration. But because Bobbi Jene fails go deeper into these connections between everyday life and art, Smith always feels at a distance despite continual footage tracking her travels throughout the film.

At other times, Smith’s talk about struggle doesn’t translate into the film’s depiction of her life. Despite a job at Stanford and studio space, Smith immediately expresses concern about her future prospects and connections . This would have perhaps been a nice starting point to debunk stereotypes that success in the art world is easily obtainable; a 24/7 creative party with a paycheck on the side.

Disappointingly, however, Bobbi Jene treats these legitimate worries as evanescent roadblocks. One moment, Smith is walking the streets of beautiful San Fransisco with a friend, discussing her lack of contacts. Minutes later in the film, Smith is sipping wine with Laura Dern; soon after, she is performing her solo act to a captivated, adoringly uncritical audience. For most starving artists, these effortless if not inconsistent transitions may be hard to relate to.

Smith’s seemingly quick success does have some positive impact. Seeing an emboldened woman artistically express her sexuality and earn effusive praise for it is not only inspirational, but vitally important. Watching Smith own these risque artistic choices is edifying  -- particularly in a context where brazen, unapologetic female voices are still a gross minority in mainstream cinema. 

At the same time, however, Smith’s accomplishments are presented without her having overcome any rattling criticism. At one point, Smith decides to showcase her naked, erotic dance show in Jerusalem. Schraiber’s family warns Smith that she will be performing in a deeply conservative city where she may face backlash. Bobbi Jene never reveals if these risks, among others, weigh heavily on either Smith or the important people in her lives. Instead, almost universally unflinching support awaits, which is simply not a reality for most starving artists in this world. 

Not surprisingly, Bobbi Jene is at its best when it far too infrequently shows Smith working on her craft. One need only observe every sinewy muscle on Smith's body spasm in intense effort while she dances to conclude that she is consumed by accomplishing personal fulfillment through breathless, if not painful, execution of her craft. 

In her spare time, Smith lifts cinder blocks, hauls 50 pounds of sand on her shoulder for a walk, and pushes up violently against walls to develop a deeper physical understanding on the meaning of “effort", and how it may apply to her dance routine. After she’s done with a practice, Smith discusses from her small, austerely furnished apartment space that while her grueling work translates to praise among performing arts lovers, the mainstream success required for artistically liberating sums of money is not possible in her field. 

These scenes provide refreshing moments of openness, where Smith reveals that her steely resolve to perform in a niche art intersects with loss and doubt. But far too often, Bobbi Jene veers dangerously close to a feature length melodrama overly insistent on uplift, rather than on the continual poignancy Smith’s solo dance performances seem to evoke.


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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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